A brutal kind of beautiful
IT rises high above Sunset Boulevard, a 45-foot-tall modern manse, brightly hued in orange and green, as cheery as any of the Craftsmans or Mission Revivals sharing the street. But cross over a gurgling pond, pass the Buddha statue, then open the glass front door, and the scenery begins to shift. A life-sized painting of a dead soldier hangs on the wall, his flesh burnt and limbs torn. Steps away, a photograph shows the World Trade Center on fire, and beyond that hangs an American flag, each star rendered with the white-shrouded head of an Abu Ghraib prisoner.
The contrast is startling, and deliberate. Owners Tim Campbell and Steve Machado have amassed a 40-plus-piece collection of artworks speaking to terrorism, racism and other -isms of our time, and yet their home still manages to be warm, welcoming and unapologetically beautiful.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. Feb. 4, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 04, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Brutalism: In Thursday’s Home section, an article on an art-filled Silver Lake home said the term Brutalism is derived from the French phrase for “raw concrete,” or breton brut. The correct spelling is beton brut.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 08, 2007 Home Edition Home Part F Page 5 Features Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Brutalism: A Feb. 1 article on an art-filled Silver Lake home said the term Brutalism was derived from the French phrase for “raw concrete,” or breton brut. The correct spelling is beton brut.
“I don’t find it difficult to live with difficult art,” Campbell says matter-of-factly, without any hint of conceit. “I would find it difficult to live with beautiful, pointless art.”
Prompted by the war abroad or social ills closer to home, more people are sharing Campbell’s sentiment, choosing to wear their hearts on their sleeves and their politics on their walls. In the last two years, galleries have seen a growing demand for politically conscious artworks, says Peter Selz, professor emeritus of art history at UC Berkeley. “We saw a similar rise in this kind of work during the Vietnam War,” Selz says. “But now there’s an enormous interest in this, and much of it is coming from California.”
The challenge, of course, comes not only in piecing together a collection that reflects one’s passion, but in living with it -- somehow maintaining a home that still feels like a home.
Campbell, 42, a self-taught building designer, has been interested in political and social art since the late 1990s. After he secured a vacant Silver Lake lot for $47,500 in 2000, he set forth to design a house specifically to showcase his growing collection. The result, completed in 2003, is a study in juxtapositions.
UPON entering from the street, a hefty metal stairway guides visitors up through the four-story, 2,000-square-foot home. The main floor consists of a spacious living room and dining area connecting to a small kitchen and a deck out back. A terrace delivers treetop views of the Silver Lake hills, and an ultrasuede couch provides a comfortable perch from which Campbell and Machado can lavish attention on their dogs, the Rhodesian Ridgeback-pitbull mix Jack and the plump pug Chausette. Wall-mounted TVs are conspicuously absent, substituted with paintings and photographs. And here’s where the space turns toward the provocative.
Travis Somerville’s “Sunday After Church” -- a collection of advertisements revealing the racism inherent in media depictions of African Americans, punctuated with black letters spelling “Sambo’s” -- looms over the dining area. It’s a pointed piece, yet it’s Attila Richard Lukacs’ ironically titled “Love” that commands even more attention.
Rendered in bright red hues, the oil painting depicts a fierce group of neo-Nazis, some appearing to taunt unseen passersby. The image, which dominates the living room, explores the ritualistic practices of heterosexual men in ways that reveal homosexual undercurrents. “He’s done the same with American military manuals, which are just amazing,” Campbell says of the artist.
In the top-floor master suite, a low-slung bed provides a kind of proscenium for Richard Ross’ photograph of a Los Angeles Police Department holding cell, complete with a ratty wood bench, chains and handcuffs. The image, Campbell says, is part of a series called “Architecture of Authority,” in which the artist scrutinizes confessionals, interrogation rooms and other spaces he says are designed to intimidate.
Much of the north wall, by contrast, is taken up by Forrest Williams’ figurative oil painting “Buttress,” showing two men squaring off on opposite sides of a table. The piece isn’t as politically overt as some of the other works in Campbell’s collection, “but it’s emotionally complex,” he says. The tone, body language and intensity of the figures’ gaze suggests something sad and confrontational, and yet somehow empathetic.
“That’s my favorite piece,” says Machado, a chiropractor, who later confesses that he hasn’t always felt comfortable with some pieces in his partner’s collection. “Others can be really hard to look at sometimes. I like the way they work together, as an entire collection.”
Veteran art consultant Barbara Guggenheim cites a school of American social realism that’s very political and “very well collected here in L.A.,” she says, “particularly amongst filmmakers who believe in being socially responsible storytellers.” Yet it is less common, she says, for these contemporary collectors to fill their homes with these works.
Though some find such work too overt or didactic, Campbell wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I think it’s too easy to forget what’s really going on in the world,” he says. “Personally, I don’t want to forget.”
FOR Campbell, paintings and photography are counterparts to his home’s third artistic element: the building itself. The structure was inspired by Brutalism, the short-lived architectural style that originated in the 1950s and promoted the frank expression of materials -- concrete and metal, often unadorned, with structural elements purposefully revealed.
Campbell not only exposed an office ceiling beam, which will patinate with age, but also made the four-story industrial staircase, complete with airplane cables and open-grate footing, a central element of the design.
“Those are grade markings,” says Campbell, pointing out some of the construction crew’s messy scribbles in yellow grease pencil on the side of the stairwell. “Normally you’d get rid of those, but I thought they were kind of beautiful, so I left them.”
These elements, when combined with the edgy artwork, could have created a cold atmosphere overloaded with tension had it not been for Campbell’s use of colorful Indian statuary, vibrant red rugs and rustic, 19th century Asian furniture, all of which provide a warmth and casualness that gives the home its presence. He softened the effect of the 10-foot-high walls by diffusing natural light throughout the space. A 20-foot-tall window of frosted glass runs along the south wall.
The real difficulty, however, was crafting this light-filled space while providing big display walls for artwork, maintaining a sense of privacy and adhering to a modest budget. Faced with a narrow hillside lot, Campbell shrank the footprint of the house to a 30-foot square, which allowed him to keep three-quarters of the 4,088-square-foot property as gardens and green space.
With the help of landscape designer Keith Popplewell, Chinese and Japanese elm trees and eucalyptus were planted, adding to a sense of serenity. The finished home, built for $185 per square foot, has a small but functional backyard that also serves as an outdoor dining room, complete with a deck, meditation pond and barbecue area.
Gallery owner Catharine Clark was so impressed with the results that she hired Campbell to design her new space near the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
“I have a lot of clients who are architects, but Tim’s house was the first living space that I walked into and said, ‘This is how I want my gallery space to be,’ ” Clark says.
“It’s so perfect, yet so quiet, that it allows the art to really come forward.”
CAMPBELL came to Los Angeles from Texas in 1986 and initially worked for the Hilton Hotels Corp. as an assistant in the design office. He struck out on his own in the late 1980s with his own architectural renderings company, CADD Production Resource. Since then he has designed 25 homes under his own name and remodeled about 200 others, including historic preservation projects as diverse as a Luis Barragan house in Holmbly Hills, a 17th century apartment in Paris and a 1935-era hotel in Palm Springs, the Colony Palms, set to reopen this year.
He says his passion for difficult art is a reaction to growing up in Kentucky and West Virginia in the shadow of his father, a fundamentalist Baptist minister. The collection reflects Campbell’s desire to speak against oppression and abuse, as well to embrace imagery that would have been considered taboo in his parents’ home. Two paintings in Campbell’s stairwell -- “Stations of the Cross” and “Crucifiction,” both painted by landscape designer Popplewell -- interpret religious symbols in ways that border on the subversive.
“There was a period when I was afraid to show that kind of work except to close friends,” Campbell says. “And it’s a little nerve-racking to actually expose yourself in this way, because I don’t know if my clients would agree with my points of view on issues of politics. But personally, I generally like people who don’t always agree with me.”
Billy Shire, owner of the Culver City galleries Billy Shire Fine Arts and La Luz de Jesus, cites the strong base of interest for dark, provocative pieces.
“There are a lot of collectors who are helping to fuel the interest in these kinds of artworks,” Shire says, “although the majority of people would rather collect work that tends to be a bit prettier.”
Indeed, when given the choice between a work of art that screams or one that simply prompts a smile, most people opt for the latter -- at least when collecting for the home. “But what if you’re screaming too?” gallery owner Clark asks. “What if you feel that the outrage is somehow your friend? Then it’s actually comforting to feel like you have shared views with people you respect.”
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A brief history of Brutalism
BRUTALISM describes a type of architecture that is profoundly honest and pure. The term found currency in the early 1950s, first by the British architects Peter and Alison Smithson, and shortly thereafter in the writings of critic Reyner Banham, author of “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies.” They all borrowed the term from the French breton brut, or “raw concrete,” a favorite medium among early Modernists.
Le Corbusier in particular was famously adept at using poured concrete in an expressive manner, and many consider his 1952 Unite d’Habitation in Marseille, France, to be a premier example of Brutalist architecture. It sits on rows of concrete legs, much like a piece of sculpture, and uses an irregular pattern of balconies across its facade to create a lyrical, visual poetry.
That residential complex in turn inspired architects as diverse as Louis Kahn, Paul Rudolph and Erno Goldfinger to build Brutalist structures, all of which celebrated their building materials in a more honest, thorough way. Though they weren’t always as playful as Le Corbusier’s, these were bulky buildings with tactile surfaces, small windows and exposed joints and supports.
Brutalism eventually lived up to its English translation, especially in London, where Brutalist designs came to define low-cost housing tracts and government buildings in the 1960s and ‘70s. As a result, the movement quickly became associated with the dour and forbidding. The British also recognized the political value of Brutalism and equated the exposure of a building’s structure and materials to a more ethical, humanist and democratic brand of architecture.
The movement lost steam in the late 1970s and virtually disappeared by the 1980s.
-- Paul Young